More than anything, I associate mastery with optimism.
It's the feeling at the start of a project when I believe that
my whole career has been preparation for this moment,
and I am saying, 'Okay, let's begin. Now I am ready.'
TWYLA THARP, from her book THE CREATIVE HABIT
What makes for "mastery" -- & the manifestation of great work? There is nothing more interesting to me than this. What are the habits / tools / processes that spark it / drive it / nurture it? What is it when you see it & what is it when you feel it?
Optimism = mastery, says Ms. Tharp. Really? How easy is it to wake up with that every day? Especially in the actor's fiercely competitive arena. It's every day the bloody Olympics of acting! Optimism can seem wildly unrealistic.
But, okay, what happens if we think about cultivating optimism as a tool to access, to pick up at will to achieve our best work? Like the other things we learned in acting school. A skill to use with intention, like script analysis or sense memory or a vocal warm-up. Could it work that way? Optimism = innate AND acquired?
In 1997 I wrote a book called TOWARD MASTERY, based on the work of Nikos Psacharopoulos. As a teacher & director, Nikos -- relentlessly! -- demanded the kind of acting you did not dare imagine you could achieve. He wrapped his demand for greatness in the equally impossible belief that you could & would get there. If not today, than tomorrow, if not tomorrow than the next day, but without a doubt, eventually, you would make good on your potential. He was fearsomely -- even blindly -- optimistic for you.
The famous 10,000 hours of practice is Malcom Gladwell's recipe for mastery in any field (We'll discuss this more as we go, under the heading of how to work hard.) 10,000 hours is not what it takes to be an expert. This is what it takes to be freakishly good. Awesome. World class. Hands down, the first requirement for mastery.
We, most of us, start out our journey in acting with enormous optimism. Optimism probably works as the springboard for getting us to those first 10,000 hours. & early on, optimism needs no bidding, it is unintentionally present.
Consider: asking the extreme of yourself + unshakeable faith = the path to great acting.
An actor comes to my studio for private coaching. She is entrusting me with her most precious gift, her work. I have read her material, looked at the notes from our last session. She is vibrant & smart & her potential is formidable. And she is nervous & not sure she can pull it off.
I am about to enter the studio, my "workroom." I can already feel the energy, the importance, the joy & the anxiety of this moment for her. I pause at the door. Stop. Breathe. Remind myself that the goal is nothing less than GREAT WORK. Not good work, not serviceable work, not acceptable work. great work. Before I step in the room, I set an intention to draw on my own resource of optimism. So as to enable hers. So as to call out to her work to take a leap.
"of course, you're never one hundred percent ready, but that's a part of mastery, too: it masks the insecurities and the gaps in technique and lets you believe you are capable of anything."
You've entered The Workroom. Come here frequently for inspiration, fuel, ideas, breath, OPTIMISM. And hold on, we're going for it. The "it" of course meaning great work.
Question: What is it for you? What is great work when you see it, & what is it when you feel it?
POST IMAGE: "Choreographer Twyla Tharp Observing Rehearsal of American Ballet Theater Dancers" by Gjon Mili. Available for purchase at Art.com.